What’s in a Name?

It was – as happens every now and then – a talk with Ellis which made me throw the question to Jocelyn: What’s your opinion, considering Chinese-Western marriages, about name changes? Now that her answer is here, it’s time for me to come clean…

In traditionally-minded China, if a relationship is to be considered the real thing, it’s considered as a pact for life. Marriage is not a question of wanting to or not, deciding based upon personal feelings about it. It’s a matter of when – if that.

Trying out different people, making lots of experiences, is diametrically opposed to the Chinese idea of what makes for a good partner, especially a good woman. Hence – or so it seems to me – the parent’s strong desire to be involved or even in control when it comes to their daughter choosing a life partner… There are not supposed to be any second chances.

[Mind you, I’m in a part of the country that is particularly conservative. And there is still considerable diversity, of course.]

Now, China used to have the tradition that the woman entered her husband’s family, took his name, and furthermore had only tenuous ties to her family of origin, if those. Things have changed quite a bit, with the daughters also supposed to care about (and for) their parents in their old age – and with both husband and wife keeping their names.

Austria, like Germany (and others) used to make the wife change to her husband’s family name. However, things here have also changed considerably, and it’s basically up to the couple’s choosing now.

In spite of all feminism, the old tradition is still dominant; hyphenated names have been somewrat on the rise. My brother was one of those, still truly few, men who took their wife’s name – basically, because our family name is as common as, well, Smith. (It is the German version of Smith, and therewith one of the most common family names in German).

When he married, a friend of his asked if I now had to keep the family line, name-wise. My mom stood by and shook her head vigorously “no.” Somehow, it was clear that  I would probably find a wife somewhere outside. It was clear enough that my parents sometimes joked that they would be happy enough if only she spoke English…

So, to me, in deference to my significant other’s culture and the challenge she is also willing to take on by  having me as her partner, I’ll want to take on my girlfriend’s name whe we marry.

It will hardly be a change for a less common name – to one of the names of the 老百姓 (“old/honorable hundred names,”  as the phrae for the Chinese common people puts it). It may even be a part of nearly going native, and it could be seen as just trying to counter the common notion that the men take, the women are taken – especially when intercultural issues are of effect in the relationship. (More on that later.)

Yet, it’s our plan. It will certainly be something of a logistical challenge, but I see it as my responsibility to make a family and become a part of her family.

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  1. I think you’re an early adopter of what will become a great new tradition.

    BTW my sister (American) is marrying another American this summer and they’re planning to both change their last name. Right now “Picnic” is the leading candidate for a surname. I guess if you’re going to change your last name you might as well go all the way.

  2. I agree with Melanie, and I’d add this — I wish more men were as open-minded about something like a name change.

    Melanie, your family sounds so cool. How neat they’re both going to change their names!

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